A main sponsor of the national conference of the Southern African Bus Operators’ Association (SABOA) for the last three years, and an active participant since its first conference 10 years ago, MAN sees this event as more than just another function. GAVIN MYERS spoke to MAN Truck & Bus South Africa’s deputy CEO Ray Karshagen about his views on issues from the 2012 conference held in February.

MAN Truck & Bus is an active participant in all SABOA events, including its strategic planning workshops, technical committee meetings and annual technical weekends. Karshagen himself has served on the organisation’s national body council for the last 11 years.

He was happy to share his views on issues brought up at this year’s conference. As you may have read on the preceding pages, substantial emphasis was placed on safety, standards and legislation.

“As the recognised body for the industry – representing some 80 percent of the bus population – pending legislation is always bounced to SABOA for comment,” says Karshagen. “We then get a feel for the industry’s mood and future buying patterns.”

This is especially true when it comes to technical legislation, which affects how manufacturers design buses that will be compliant while also achieving maximum efficiency. “We talk among ourselves,” says Karshagen. “We also have private discussions with operators about how the proposed new legislation will affect them – for example, if a change is going to make a bus heavier, its carrying capacity will be affected.”

MAN often takes the initiative and implements changes ahead of legislation being passed. Emergency-escape roof hatches, not yet a legal requirement, have been a feature of its products for the last two years. Rollover compliance is another area where the company has been proactive, achieving compliance two years before this became a legislated requirement.

However, Karshagen warns that this isn’t always easy. “The problem with bringing safety-focused legislation into force is that there are many vested interests in passenger transport, from taxis right through to buses,” he says. With operating contracts still being issued on a monthly basis, many operators lose confidence, while taxi operators want to be regarded as small bus operators so they can get their piece of the pie, and labour unions want their members to be protected no matter what transpires.

This means there’s a lot of arm-wrestling, says Karshagen, and in the middle of it all is the Department of Transport – which, as transpired during one of the conference sessions, is itself not even 100 percent sure on the specific workings of certain documents.

“Nevertheless, at SABOA technical meetings we always talk about furthering safety,” says Karshagen, adding that the current hot topic is emergency exits.

MAN emphasises its stance on safety by displaying its range of genuine parts at SABOA Conference 2012.“The South African industry norm has been side windows fitted with rubber gaskets – push-out windows – but there is as yet no standard regarding the force that needs to be applied. Do young passengers have the strength to push these windows hard enough, especially as the rubber gets older and builds up memory?

“Certain stakeholders are saying this doesn’t matter – they supply hammers or punches to shatter the window instead – but they have vested interests from the supply chain side. From the operator side, there is resistance because these tools get stolen or used even when there isn’t an emergency.”

MAN has come up with a system where hammers are kept behind a plastic cover so they’re less susceptible to theft. “But whatever solution is proposed, operators will see their operating costs increasing, while government is trying to lower subsidies.”

With the various parties fighting among themselves, Karshagen suggests that, from a real safety point of view, the answer is a combination of all these aspects. “It’s all being hotly debated as to what should be the norm, but whatever is required, there should be a performance standard – and at the moment there isn’t. MAN is pushing for that. We should all be safety conscious; not just bus body builders, but operators too. All stakeholders need to be conscious, because they are carrying human lives.”

There are, of course, minimum safety standards that have been legislated and must be complied with during the homologation process before a new model hits the road. There are, for example, strict standards in terms of braking. But as Karshagen points out, these standards aren’t very difficult to meet. “Our braking systems are in line with our European products – we have electronic braking and anti-skid systems, while ABS is standard. But a manufacturer doesn’t need these types of features to comply with homologation standards – they only need to achieve a certain level of braking efficiency.

“And making European standards compulsory here won’t necessarily raise our own safety standards, since some of them aren’t applicable,” says Karshagen.

He stresses that driver training is vital if any safety feature is to be effective, and mentions the Long Tom Pass accident of the late 1990s, in which 27 of the 37 British tourists on board lost their lives.

Since then, there’s been much more emphasis on rollover and seat-anchorage safety. “In the event of a rollover, the structure of the bus must not collapse more than a certain amount,” says Karshagen. “It should form a safety cocoon that protects the people inside.”

But the biggest issue is people being thrown out of the bus: “And you can’t always enforce the use of seatbelts on a bus, especially on commuter buses where there are standing passengers.”

Karshagen explains how seat anchorage and seat strength work together: “Seat anchorage means the seats must be anchored to the floor of the bus in such a way that the force of impact won’t rip them out. Seat strength means the seat itself must not be too rigid – on impact, the seat in front should collapse to a certain degree and thus cushion the force of a person hitting it from behind. The SABS can and does test this.”

Even though this legislation is in place, it is not necessarily easy to police. “The sad thing is that it often takes a horrible accident to reveal that a vehicle didn’t comply,” says Karshagen. “But the annual certificate of fitness now involves a six-monthly test – this change came about in November 2011 – and it is hoped that this will lead to greater levels of compliance and improvements in safety.”

At the end of the day, you just need responsible operators. It’s sounds so simple, but Karshagen is under no illusion: “With emerging operators, the first consideration is cost, and they don’t have the technical expertise to know what to choose. This is where SABOA can play a role, with a technical advisory committee to advise these new players about specifications and so on. A lot of new operators do join SABOA. They even pay a lower fee and get preferential insurance rates that have been negotiated, which further encourages them.”

The more operators who join SABOA, the better – the industry will be better for it, as will the economy and every single road user, from driver and passenger to pedestrians.

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